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Mangalore Diary:
In praise of senior Bharatanatyam exponent Jayalakshmi Alva

- Dr. Sunil Kothari
Photos courtesy: Dr. Araty Shetty

August 27, 2011

Two years ago to celebrate 75 years of Jayalakshmi Alva, a special function was organized in Mangalore. I was away in Montreal, therefore I sent an email wishing her and recalled my association with her and promised her daughter Dr Araty Shetty, who is principal of Sarasa College of Arts and Science affiliated to Mangalore University, and is approved by Government of Karnataka. She is a performing artiste and looks after the College of Dance and Music.

I kept my promise last year in November 2010, when Arathy invited me to participate in a seminar on dance. I do not remember when I must have visited Mangalore during my 'discovery of India' journeys in the mid-sixties. I was under the impression that Mangalore was a part of Kerala, because of its proximity to Kasargod, but it is in fact a coastal town of Karnataka. Therefore there was focus on the dance seminar with the theme of Karnataka dance traditions.

By fortuitous circumstances, when I was in Ahmedabad visiting my elder brother, I received a call from Shreelekha Mehta, Jayalakshmi's disciple informing me that she, Arathy and Jayaben were in Ahmedabad. I requested Jayaben, as we used to address her in Mumbai, to come to my brother's residence near Gujarat University and she did with Araty and Shreelekha. And what a joy it was to meet them after so many years. Graceful, dignified and with her grey hair, Jayaben looked beautiful and exuded her usual warmth.

Jayalakshmi Alva and her husband

Alva with Swarna Saraswati

We recalled our first meeting in Mumbai at Rang Bhavan in a dance festival in 1957, when Jayaben performed Kurathi's role in Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuravanji with Mrinalini Sarabhai in the role of princess. Jayalakshmi had arresting stage presence and she made a charming Kurathi, reading the palm of the princess. Full of joi d'vivre, as they say in French, she performed with Úlan and teased the princess, for awaiting his arrival and soon to be united with him. Taking her basket with several gifts and when princess bestowed upon her more gifts, Kurathi laughed and danced her way into the hearts of the rasikas. I was an up and coming scholar and dance critic and wrote for Gujarat daily Janmabhoomi praising Jayalakshmi's vivacious performance.

Later on after her marriage, she moved to Mumbai from Ahmedabad (where she taught at Darpana) teaching several young dancers at Bhulabhai Institute including Sonal Mansingh (nee Pakvasa) and Maya Kulkarni. I used to attend her classes. Thanks to Prof. Mohan Khokar who had informed me about her being a disciple of Guru Dandayudhapani Pillai, her solid training and brilliant nattuvangam, I enjoyed meeting her and learning more about Kuravanji, dance-drama form, and her method of training young dancers without any compromise. She was quite strict, but also affectionate and proud of what she had inherited as art from her mentor.

Jayaben used to conduct nattuvangam for Sonal and Maya and ah, what riyaz they used to do. Bhulabhai Institute at that time was the meeting place of Pandit Ravi Shankar, painters MF Hussain, Dashrath Patel, Gaitonde and others. Soli Batliwala, trustee of Bhulabhai Institute, assisted dancers, musicians and painters. Can you believe, the institute used to charge painters rupee one only per day as rent for letting them use the studios there! Dancers practiced downstairs. The terrace theatre had performances of dance and music. Those were the halcyon days in Mumbai for performing arts.

Alva with Mohan Khokar

Alva with Mrinalini Sarabhai

Alva with Mahalingam Pillai

Alva with Sitara Devi

Later on, two sisters Shreelekha and Aditi Mehta started studying from Jayaben. To them Jayaben was their friend, philosopher and guide. In early '60s, regular performances of up and coming young dancers were held regularly at Bhulabhai Institute. Musicians like Parveen Sultana, Rais Khan, used to perform and legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin used to visit the institute. Solimama, as we used to address Soli Batliwala, would introduce us to these artists and give us complimentary tickets to attend their performances with a view to encourage us to expose ourselves to these great artistes.

Jayaben reminisced about the Kuravanji and performances in Mumbai. As a dance critic, since I used to write in Gujarati and English for the Times of India, dancers would let me know well in advance about their forthcoming performances. Jayaben would ask me to come and watch a class if she was composing something new. Or would think that I should know more about particular aspect of nritta or nritya, abhinaya, or a structure of a varnam, chitta svaras, the use of tattu mettu adavus. It was a pleasure to learn all these from Jayaben. Sonal, Maya, Shreelekha all benefitted as the sound training has stood by them in good stead and they acknowledge it. Jayaben gave freely without reservation and even when she appeared very strict, the dancers knew that what they were getting from Jayaben was indeed rare and precious.

Her initial training was under the legendary devadasi Swarna Saraswati from whom she imbued the nuances of abhinaya. When she came under the tutelage of Dandayudhapani Pillai, her talent bloomed. Younger sister of singer KV Janaki, Jayalakshmi opted for dance.

Alva as Poothana in Krishna Keerthan

Alva as Sita with Chathunni Panicker

In Mumbai she established Chitrambalam Dance Centre in 1959 and earned the affection of classical dance exponents of Mumbai. I remember on the 10th anniversary, Chitrambalam Dance Centre presented Krishna Keerthan in which Jayaben performed Poothana moksham in Kathakali and astounded one and all. Next day was a historic presentation of four classical dance forms. The Jhaveri sisters performed Manipuri, Ritha Devi - Odissi, Sitara Devi - Kathak and Jayalakshmi - Bharatanatyam. It received rousing reception. There is a photograph published in a special souvenir on 75th birthday celebrations of Jayalakshmi, where dressed up in a suit and a tie, I am MC for the show!

Jayaben left for Mangalore as her husband Ramakrishna Alva and she had planned to start an academy on the lines of Kalakshetra on their family property they had inherited. But it did not materialize. Ramakrishna Alva passed away and Jayaben had to undergo several hardships to raise her daughter by conducting classes, but never-say-die Jayaben established Sridevi Nritya Kendra in Mangalore in 1974 and trained a number of dancers. The quality of her training was much appreciated. She accepted life as it came her way, never losing faith. She remained quiet and serene.

Jayaben's contemporaries like NS Jayalakshmi and CV Chandrashekhar from Kalakshetra, Mrinalini Sarabhai and dancers from Darpana Dance Academy, Guru Mahalingam Pillai, Kalyanasundaram Pillai, Parvati Kumar, the Jhaveri Sisters, Sitara Devi, Damayanti Joshi from Mumbai, all held her in high esteem as do Jayaben's disciples. Dancers from Bengaluru, Mysore, Udipi all adore her. I gather from all who attended her 75th birthday celebrations about their presentation of Panchakanya and the mood of joy to be together, that it was a most memorable event.

Jayalakshmi has during her long career produced and choreographed several dance compositions and dance-dramas. Among them Chitrambalam Kuravanji, Krishna Tulabharam, Vasantavalli, Krishna Keerthana, Swati Tirunal's Ramayana, Balaramayana, Navagraha, Nritya Govindam, Karavali Gatha, Harmony and Pancha Kanya are outstanding. I was fortunate to see some of them and with great delight saw during my visit to Mangalore her choreography of Swati Tirunal's Bhavayami composition interweaving episodes of Ramayana in a tight choreographic frame, performed by her disciples including her daughter Araty and grand daughter Satvika, with flawless technique.

Receiving Shantala Award

With family at Rajyotsava Awards

Alva on a trip to Japan

Alva performing with a disciple

I was received at the airport by Purnima Gururaj, Araty and her husband Harish and like old friends started talking nine to the dozen, exchanging views on dance, catching up with the latest and the outline of the seminar, topics, presentation of Swati Tirunal's Ramayana, the other participants who were attending the seminar. Lalitha Srinivasan of Nupura, Bhanumati, Purnima Gururaj from Bangalore, Radhika Nandakumar and her husband RS Nandakumar, son of Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. R Sathyanarayana from Mysore, and local dancers, rasikas and admirers of Jayalakshmi were to discuss on various aspects of dance traditions in Karnataka. Lalitha Srinivasan read a scholarly paper on Suladi prabandhas and presented through her disciples some reconstructed numbers. Her work is very educative throwing light on rare gems of dance numbers which she is reconstructing. Radhika and Nanda Kumar also presented rare compositions and showcased their efforts to invigorate the tradition in terms of music and dance. The Kirans could not attend on account of last minute urgent work. A contemporary young dancer spoke of how with sound training in classical form, one can take off to creating contemporary works.

Bhanumati's lecture and demonstration on choreography was an eye opener. How she aligned the dancers in group compositions and showed the pitfalls of cluttered movements. With sound understanding of entries and exits and simple movements what excellent patterns can be created which look perfect instead of jumbled sequences. This understanding of pattern, space, keeping dancers at right distance to let the Bharatanatyam movements work wonders was indeed very creditable. No wonder Bhanumati has won acclaim for her group choreography. I feel she should conduct workshops in this area which would help many enthusiasts to grasp what choreography in Bharatanatyam means.

The visit to Mangalore was further rewarded with a visit to Udipi temple with Jayaben. The priests and administrators respect her a lot. With her, senior dancers like Vyjayanthimala and others have visited Udipi temple for darshan. From a small window we see the vigraha of the Lord, who turned when the devotee could not have his darshan - the entire experience is beyond words.

On way to a family union, we visited Yakshagana Kendra. Though it was closed on account of a holiday, the administrator was kind enough to let has have a look at the library and screened some videos of a festival for us. Later on we visited the building where training is given in Yakshagana. A philanthropist gave a large sum to have permanent place for hostel, training and performance. The artists specially performed for us a brief prasanga from Yakshagana. Marvelous singing and perfect coordination of movements left an indelible impression.

It was also a pleasure to meet Father Denis D'sa at Mullers Hospital and see the work being done there in terms of rehabilitation and handicrafts. Father generously gave me few presents of handicrafts which I shall treasure as fond memories of my visit to Mangalore.

Dr. Sunil Kothari
Dr. Sunil Kothari is dance historian, scholar, author and a renowned dance critic. He is Vice President of World Dance Alliance Asia Pacific India chapter, based in New Delhi. He is honored by the President of India with Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Senior Critic Award from Dance Critics Association, NYC. He is a regular contributor to and is a contributing editor of Nartanam for the past 11 years.

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